Europe’s policies don’t fit the new world order


Picture of Sebastian Reyn
Sebastian Reyn

Sebastian Reyn is Director of Strategy, Policy Planning & Innovation at the Dutch Ministry of Defence

Since the end of the Cold War, the EU has benefited from an unprecedented geopolitical windfall. As the Soviet Union dissolved and new countries joined, it seemed to many Europeans that geopolitics no longer mattered. Talk throughout these years was mostly about geo-economics, in which the EU could – and still can – stand its ground. That geopolitical vacation, though, is finished. The world has become a rougher and more complex place, and the EU needs to adapt if it’s to survive. The best thing European leaders can do now is to deepen their political and defence cooperation as well as to reaffirm the transatlantic partnership.

Several years ago, I headed an inter-agency survey into the future of international security. With the help of experts from all over the world, this survey produced four scenarios that, I believe, continue to provide a useful framework for assessing the evolution of the international system.

In the ‘Multipolar’ scenario, power blocs form and international conflicts of interests and values become much more pronounced. The ‘Fragmentation’ scenario was even worse, as anti-globalisation forces and the desire to protect one’s own identity, prosperity and security get the upper hand – in this scenario, the EU and even some of its member countries fall apart. The other two scenarios were much friendlier to the European model. In the ‘Multilateral’ scenario, the system of international cooperation, working to resolve conflicts, is further developed – the multilateralism in this scenario may well be messy, but ultimately leads to collective action. Lastly, the ‘Network’ scenario sees globalisation continue at full steam and market forces dominate.

Global order is now, after decades of predictable partnerships, becoming an increasingly complex and volatile chess game

As we developed these scenarios, the most hotly-debated question was whether Europe could hold its own in the ‘Multipolar’ scenario and steer clear of ‘Fragmentation’. The moment of truth now seems to have arrived, and I believe we have experienced a shift toward both – a combination of the ‘Multipolar’ and ‘Fragmentation’ scenarios. This culminated in the ‘summer of war’ in 2014, the terrorist attacks by Daesh on Paris and Brussels and the recent surge in refugees. I’m not saying that the multilateral system is beyond repair or that global market forces and technological change don’t continue to provide impetus to globalisation. But we would doubtless look upon the state of world affairs differently had the Arab Spring succeeded and had Russia refrained from bullying its neighbours.

The growing geopolitical stress is seriously testing European unity. After the unipolar system that followed the Cold War’s bipolar system, global order is now, after decades of predictable partnerships, becoming an increasingly complex and volatile chess game. Many nations have boosted their military expenditures over the past decade, while those in the West – particularly in Europe – have cut spending drastically. Russia has demonstrated that it doesn’t shy away from using its military assets to further its national interests and the perceived interests of Russian-speaking people in other countries. Using its propaganda machine and political relationships, Moscow is actively trying to sow division within Europe and the transatlantic partnership.

In addition, European unity is threatened by the belt of instability to its south. With the unravelling of the Arab Spring, it has become impossible for us to deny the huge impact of circumstances in that part of the world. Europe has, moreover, proven to be less ‘postmodern’ than was often believed, with its integration process coming under unprecedented stress. Both the financial and the refugee crises have fuelled the rise of anti-EU populism in many countries, bringing the real possibility of a democratically-engineered disaster.

Europe is at risk of being flatfooted in a rougher world in which rules count for less than power

Many European policies are grounded on the assumption that the international system is rules-based. This puts Europe at risk of being flatfooted in a rougher world in which rules count for less than power. Yet for Europe to go along with harsher and more dreadful political realities may help bring about the world we least desire. Europe continues to benefit the most from a world exhibiting the features of the ‘Multilateral’ and ‘Network’ scenarios. In fact, most European policies are explicitly or implicitly aimed at achieving such a world. Much of the current policy confusion in Europe is explained by the fact that the international system nonetheless appears to be evolving in the opposite direction.

Given this contradictory state of affairs, European policies should strike a new balance between realism and idealism. We need a hard-nosed and robust multilateralism backed up by military force as well as economic clout, rather than the high-minded but impotent multilateralism too often exhibited in policy statements emanating from Brussels. Without it, European leaders can’t hope to stave off the dangers from the east and the south. Europe needs to describe how it’s going to deal with this more connected, contested and complex world. Security and defence must be a prominent feature in future strategy, which in turn must be translated into real-life military capabilities.

It would be ill-advised to be fatalistic about European cooperation, for the mechanisms are in place to reach consensus even when interests don’t always converge. European nations are still strong when they decide to act collectively. And the EU has had some geopolitical successes, such as the imposition of severe sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea, the EU’s role in reaching the nuclear deal with Iran, and the reduction of the piracy threat off Somalia’s coast. But it would be reckless to underestimate the challenge at hand. The zone of peace and stability that has been built in Europe over decades is at stake. It isn’t too late, but there’s no time to lose.

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